The Reagans, the miniseries originally created by CBS and then moved to Showtime, has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards. Not bad for a series that CBS dumped to its sister property Showtime on the grounds that it didn’t have enough balance to air on broadcast TV. But was moving the Reagans off broadcast an artistic decision, or a financial decision by Viacom to curry political favor at a critical time.
I wrote this last month, but it seems timely now.
Another Day of Politics As Usual Censoring Your TV
CBS produced an unflattering miniseries about former President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan. Conservatives, who regard the Reagans with the adoration usually reserved for religious figures, complained and threatened a boycott. But CBS held firm. They pledged to air the show, which they maintained is fair and historically accurate.
Then a funny thing happened. Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie wrote CBS president Les Moonves to ever-so-politely express concern about The Reagans and suggest that a panel of historians and friends of the Reagans review it before airing. Within 24 hours, CBS folded. Les Moonves announced that, although he still believed the miniseries was historically accurate, CBS would move the miniseries to its premium cable channel Showtime, effectively moving it out of the public eye.
What made Moonves cave? As it happens, CBS’ parent, Viacom, owes some big favors to the Republican leadership. On June 2, the FCC issued an order lifting the previous limits on how many television stations a company can own. This allows Viacom (already over the old limit due to temporary waivers) and other large media companies to buy many more stations. This decision caused a wave of outrage in the public as a whole and the Senate passed legislation to cancel out the FCC decision.
The Republican leadership has fought tooth and nail against this “legislative veto” of the FCC. Senate majority leader Bill Frist tried to stop the “legislative veto” from moving forward, but failed. Now it sits in the House of Representatives, where a unified Republican leadership have vowed to keep the “legislative veto” from coming to the floor for a vote. Even if it passed, Bush has threatened to veto the “legislative veto” and sustain the FCC’s June 2 decision allowing Viacom and others to buy more stations.
What went through Moonves’ mind when he saw a letter from the Chair of the RNC? No threats were made; Gillespie never did anything as vulgar as threaten to pull back support for Viacom in the House. But what did Moonves read between the lines? Did he worry, somewhere in the back of his mind, that running The Reagans as planned might compromise the ironclad support Viacom has gotten from the Republican leadership? After all, this is the same RNC that sponsored the infamous “K St. Project,” where the RNC made it clear to lobbying firms that if they didn’t hire Republicans rather than Democrats they could forget about moving their issues on the Hill.
No one can really blame Les Moonves for looking out for corporate parent Viacom. It’s his job to care about the bottom line and return for share holders. If that means that controversial programming that rocks the boat a little too much goes by the wayside, well, its not Moonves job to protect free speech.
This little bit of political hardball, unusual only for the way it has come to the public eye, shows what’s wrong with the media situation in the country today. When only a few large corporations control the media, this melding of political interests and the bottom line becomes common place. Media giant Clear Channel worries about a possible investigation by the Justice Department and the FCC on whether its practices violate antitrust laws or the Communications Act. Coincidentally, it sponsors pro-war rallies and bans the Dixie Chicks for criticizing the President. Rupert Murdoch wants to buy DirecTV, a merger under review by the administration. He supports the administration’s Iraq policy as well.
Even without a direct quid pro quo, when only a handful of companies control the vast majority television stations, radio stations and cable systems, it isn’t hard for the party in power to get what it wants if it really wants it. Nor is it hard for these companies to get what they want if they are united in wanting – like rules prohibiting viewers from editing out commercials or prohibiting viewers from making more than one recording of a television show.
What’s worse is that these few companies own all the cable channels. Critics of media ownership limits argue that the 500 channel cable network makes censorship impossible. But Viacom and other media companies like it own all the most popular channels where programming like this could air. If CBS had released the project rather than putting it on its own cable network Showtime, it could have found no other home unless Scripps Howard wanted to put it on the Food Network.
Ultimately, whether The Reagans airs on a broadcast network or not is a trivial thing that will quickly pass. But the lasting harm to our democracy is real and pressing. When CBS, or any other network, considers whether to air programming that challenges the party in power, they will remember Les Moonves and the letter from Ed Gillespie. No one will have to threaten, no one will have to tell them twice, and the public will never know about the documentary on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that got cancelled by the network before it went into production.
Stay tuned . . .